Sexuality in science fiction refers to the incorporation of sexual themes into science fiction or related genres. Such elements may include depictions of realistic sexual interactions in a science fictional setting, a character with an alternative sexuality as the protagonist, or exploration of the varieties of sexual experience that deviate from the conventional.
Science fiction and fantasy have traditionally been puritanical genres orientated toward a male readership; they can be more constrained than non-genre literature by their conventions of characterization and their effect on depictions of sexuality and gender. However, speculative fiction also gives the freedom to imagine societies different from real-life cultures, making SF an incisive tool to examine sexual bias and forcing the reader to reconsider his or her cultural assumptions.
Prior to the 1960s, explicit sexuality of any kind was not characteristic of genre speculative fiction. For many years, the editors who controlled what was published attempted to protect their key market of adolescent male readers. In the 1960s, science fiction and fantasy began to reflect the changes prompted by the civil rights movement and the emergence of a counterculture. New wave and Feminist SF authors imagined cultures a variety of gender models or atypical sexual relationships, such as group marriages or homosexual single-gendered societies, are the norm, and depictions of sex acts and alternative sexualities became commonplace.
In speculative fiction, extrapolation allows writers to focus not on the way things are (or were), as non-genre literature does, but on the way things could be different. It provides science fiction with a quality that science fiction critic Darko Suvin has called, "cognitive estrangement", the recognition that what we are reading is not the world as we know it, but a world whose change forces us to reconsider our own with an outsider's perspective. When the extrapolation involves sexuality or gender, it can force the reader to reconsider his or her heteronormative cultural assumptions; the freedom to imagine societies different from real-life cultures makes SF a incisive tool to examine sexual bias. In science fiction, such estranging features include technologies that significantly alter sex or reproduction. In fantasy, such features include figures, for example, mythological deities and heroic archetypes, who are not limited by preconceptions of human sexuality and gender, allowing them to be reinterpreted. SF has also also depicted a plethora of alien methods of reproduction and sex.
Uranian Worlds, by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, is an authoritative guide to science fiction literature featuring gay, lesbian, transgender, and related themes. The book covers science fiction literature published before 1990 (2nd edition), providing a short review and commentary on each piece.
True History by the Greek writer Lucian (A.D. 120-185) has been called the first ever science fiction story. The narrator is suddenly enveloped by a typhoon and swept up to the moon, which is inhabited by a society of men that are at war with the sun. After distinguishing himself in combat, the king gives the hero his son the prince in marriage. The all male society reproduces (male children only) by giving birth from the thigh or by growing a child from a plant produced by planting the left testicle in the moon's soil.
In other proto-SF works, sex itself, of any type, was equated with base desires or "beastliness", as in Gulliver's Travels, which contrasts the animalistic and overtly sexual Yahoos with the reserved and intelligent Houyhnhnms. Early works that showed sexually open characters to be morally impure include the first lesbian vampire story "Carmilla" (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu (collected in In a Glass Darkly).
One of the earliest examples of genre science fiction that involves a challenging amount of unconventional sexual activity is the early science fiction novel Odd John (1935), by Olaf Stapledon. John is a mutant with extraordinary mental abilities who will not allow himself to be bound by many of the rules imposed by the ordinary British society of his time. The novel strongly implies that he has consensual intercourse with his mother and that he seduces an older boy who becomes devoted to him but also suffers from the affront that the relationship creates to his own morals. John eventually concludes that any sexual interaction with 'normal' humans is akin to bestiality.
Sturgeon, who wrote many stories during the Golden Age of Science Fiction that emphasised the importance of love, regardless of the current social norms such as in The World Well Lost, a classic tale involving alien homosexuality, and Venus Plus X, in which a contemporary man awakens in a futuristic place where the people are hermaphrodites.
Philip Jose Farmer wrote The Lovers (1953), arguably the first science fiction story to feature sex as a major theme and Strange Relations (1960), collection of five stories about human/alien sexual relations. In his novel Flesh a hypermasculine antlered man ritually impregnates legions of virgins to counter declining male fertility.
Until the late 1960s, however, few other writers depicted alternative sexuality or revised gender roles, or openly investigated sexual questions.
Feminist SF authors imagined cultures in which homo- and bisexuality and a variety of gender models is the norm. Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) and the award winning story When It Changed, showing a female-only lesbian society that flourished without men, were enormously influential. Russ is largely responsible for introducing radical lesbian feminsm into science fiction.
In his most famous science fiction novel entitled Dhalgren (1975), Delany spots his large canvas with characters of a wide variety of sexualities. Once again, sex activity is not the focus of the novel although there are some of the first explicitly described scenes of gay sex in SF. Delany depicts, mostly with affection, characters with a wide variety of motivations and behaviours, not, it would seem, with the intent of a kind of covert advocacy but with the effect of revealing to the reader the fact that these kinds of people exist in the real world. Nebula-winning short story "Aye, and Gomorrah", which posits the development of neutered human astronauts and then depicts the people who become sexually oriented toward them. By imagining a new gender and resultant sexual orientation, the story allows readers to reflect on the real world while maintaining an estranging distance. In later works, Delany blurs the line between science fiction and gay pornography. Delaney faced censorship from book distribution companies for treatment of these topics.
In Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein (1973), the main character argues strongly for the future liberty of homosexual sex, and Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress both depict group marriages and public nudity as desirable social norms. Ursula K. Le Guin explored trans-species sexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), the sexuality of species in which individuals are neither "male" nor "female" but can have both male and female sexual organs and reproductive abilities, making them in some senses bisexual. Le Guin has subsequently written many stories that examine the possibilities SF allows for non-traditional sexuality, such as the sexual bonding between clones in "Nine Lives" (collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters).
James Tiptree Jr., a bisexual woman writing secretly under a male pseudonym, explored the sexual impulse as her main theme; in her award-winning "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever), she presents a female only society after the extinction of men from disease. The society lacks stereotypically "male" problems such as war, but is stagnant. The women reproduce via cloning and consider men to be comical. Other stories portrayed humans becoming sexually obsessed with aliens ("And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side"), or aliens being sexually abused. The Girl Who Was Plugged In is an early precursor of cyberpunk that shows a relationship via a cybernetically controlled body.
John Varley, who also came to prominence in the 1970s, is another writer of importance to sexual themes. In his "Eight Worlds" suite of stories (many collected in The John Varley Reader) and novels, humanity has achieved the ability to change sex with at a whim. Homophobia is shown to initially inhibit uptake of this technology, as it engenders drastic changes in relationships, with bisexuality becoming the default mode for society. His Gaean trilogy features lesbian protagonists.
Elizabeth Lynn's Chronicles of Tornor novels (1979-80), the first of which won the World Fantasy Award, were among the first fantasy novels to have gay relationships as an unremarkable part of the cultural background. Her SF novel A Different Light (1978) featured a same-sex relationship between two men, and inspired the name of the famous LGBT bookstore and chain, "A Different Light". She also wrote novels depicting sado-masochism, unusually from the viewpoint of an unwilling victim.
In the Mythopoeic award winning Unicorn Mountain (1988), Michael Bishop includes a gay male AIDS patient among the carefully drawn central characters who must respond to an irruption of dying unicorns at their Colorado ranch. The death of the hedonistic gay culture and safe-sex campaign resulting from the AIDS epidemic are also explored, both literally and metaphorically.